Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Houston, we have winner.
We're going to stray from our 1/6th mantra today.
Besides GI Joe and other 12" action figures like the Marx Mike Hazard and Captain Action, one of my favorite toys as a kid was Major Matt Mason. For those who aren't familiar with Matt's short but glorious run, he was a 6" bendy astronaut with removable helmet. The figure was fine, but what made the line so great were Matt's huge range of accessories, from nifty bubble-carded playsets to huge battery operated Moon vehicles, a working space glider, and the grandaddy of the line, a three level "space station" that stood several feet tall. He also had a number of astronaut friends (including an early black action figure, though GI Joe apparently had the first), and several aliens.
I've got a more-or-less complete space station in my collection, a space crawler, a few replica figures and a few smaller accessories, but this stuff is spendier and harder to come by than GI Joe stuff, so I've never tried to amass a full collection. But I do follow several discussion lists for MMM collectors, and there's always discussion about Mattel reviving the Matt Mason line in some form, either as a replica of the original toy, as a new toy line, or both.
Of course, with old-time collectors the sentiment is on a new bendy toy. And while that's possible for a nostalgia replica, I doubt it would happen with a new toy line. (Given modern safety laws, it might even be impossible for it to happen.) On the other hand, people seem opposed to the idea of a hard-plastic figure. Maybe one feeling is that it won't be realistic enough, or more probably, that it will lack articulation.
Well, in that department, I think the original Matt is somewhat overrated. His waist, wrists, and ankles didn't bend (though the ability to twist the leg somewhat compensated for the last), and his "bellows" knee, elbow, shoulder and hip joints couldn't hold a tight bend very well. He couldn't sit well, or bend well, or do much of anything well but stand there with limited bending of his arms.
The original had other problems as well. Those wires always broke eventually, and they could break sooner if the figure was dropped or flexed too hard. The rubber had a tendency to "melt" in the hard plastic of his accessories (try finding a space station seat without melt marks), and his paint peeled off.
Fortunately, modern toy designers have other options, and I think nothing illustrates this better than the above pictured figure. Surprisingly, it's from the second series of Fantastic Four movie figures. It's the "Astronaut Ben Grimm" figure. (You can click on all these pictures for a closer look).
Like Major Matt Mason, this is a roughly 6" astronaut figure. Like Matt, the design is closely based on real space suit designs (this closely resembles hard suits planned for future Mars and Moon missions) and seems to include the rear-entry hatch design used in current Russian suits). But there, the comparison ends.
This is a hard plastic figure, and unlike MMM, this faithfully represents the bulky look of actual EVA space suits from Apollo forward. As such, you'd think the articulation on this figure would be very limited. You'd be wrong.
This guy is very limber. He has ball and socket joints at hips and shoulders with a large range of movement. The knees are double jointed so the legs can bend almost double. The elbows only bend about 90 degrees, but that's probably as good as Matt could do, and he also has a hinged wrist (no rotation, unfortunately, though there's no reason a similar figure couldn't have this designed in), and hinged fingers for grasping. His waist swivels, and his feet not only bend back and forth, but have hinged toes for kneeling, and swivel from side to side to allow him to stand flat-footed in a variety of poses or on irregular terrain.
In addition, there are also rotary cut joints at the upper arms and legs, giving him even more flexibility. He can be posed walking. He can kneel. He can jump. He can dance. He can float He can sit, though not bolt upright with his knees close together. His poses are very natural and life-like, not stiff and robotic.
He can touch the top of his helmet, and hold things in front of his faceplate.
Heck, he can even scratch his butt (those space diapers they have to wear are itchy!).
With all this, he still has an "action feature" built in. Press the button on his backpack, and his head spins around in his helmet, changing from a human face ("look, it's that guy from 'The Shield!'") to a rocky "Thing" face. Of course the action feature means his helmet and backpack aren't removable, nor can the head turn in the conventional way. But these features could certainly be built into a purpose-built modern astronaut figure.
With all this, Astronaut Grimm seems to be a solid, sturdy, playable toy that I wouldn't hesitate to give to a younger child.
If you like space toys, this little baby belongs in your collection, even if it is (no pun intended) a stand-alone piece. These came out a long while back, but I've seen them in KB Liquidator stores not to long ago, and given the wide distribution of the FF toys, you never know what drug store of Big Lots might have one of these warming the pegs.
But the bigger point is, it is possible to do a good astronaut figure using modern hard-plastic construction, one that would be a worthy heir to our beloved bendy Matt.